As a Russian, I don’t know how to live with the shame of Putin’s aggression

This morning everything has changed. Here in Russia, over images of tanks rolling into Ukraine, broadcasters tell us that our actions are a response to Ukrainian military aggression.

I spoke to my father recently about the conflict in Ukraine. Any situation that involves aggression, injustice or war worries me. My father, though, was angry and sharp. He believed everything the authorities were doing was right. According to him, Ukraine was built with Soviet money, and it belongs to Russia. If it is occupied, the Ukrainian people are simply being saved from their government. And Russia’s borders will be more secure.

My father is an educated person. He is middle class. He doesn’t work for one of the government agencies or businesses. He even has Ukrainian roots. But his opinion completely coincides with the opinion of Vladimir Putin.

As missiles attack Ukraine’s infrastructure, he holds strong in his belief that the country should unite and prove itself – once again show its strength and power, and not step back. The west should understand who it is dealing with, and that Russians do not throw words to the wind and you cannot negotiate with us with ultimatums.

Among my friends, relatives and colleagues, there were few who would publicly discuss Russia’s actions as an act of aggression. Many because they think it’s better not to discuss and think about it. Many did not believe there would be a war.

Instead people talked about the small things in their lives that will be affected. Sanctions. Again. Our ability to travel. How things will be more expensive in dollars and euros. And how people in Europe will dislike us even more now.

Today’s news has shocked them. Now, everyone is afraid that they will no longer be able to leave the country. They finally realised that all this will affect each of them. The first feeling that they have experienced is shame: shame about what is happening and shame of being the citizen of an aggressor.

For many months, if you looked at the mainstream media, they have been saying the west had insidious plans that would end with war. The enemy at the gate is the United States, Nato, or Europe. They said that the west had plans to deploy nuclear weapons to Ukraine and take away our nuclear arsenal. Ultimately to take over Russia: divide it, destroy it and take it apart.

This is said not just on state news, but discussed all day on big talk shows like Time Will Tell. There is a sense that we are an underdog – we are not loved, we are insulted, we are underestimated, we are not accepted. The world needs to respect us again – we could regain the power of the Russian empire or even the Soviet Union.

And for years, the foreign voices and faces we have been shown are unhappy pro-Russian residents of Donbas. They are shown begging for help, pleading for recognition and saying how badly they are treated in Ukraine. (We never hear about how we – or the Russian government – has financed the conflict in the region.)

There have been many reasons people go along with this or fully support it. Older people still have memories of the Soviet era; silence was survival, and it still weighs on them. There are many people, especially in rural areas, where a lot of work is in the public sector, and there are more rules about speaking out. They are afraid of losing their livelihood.

Many younger people born during or after perestroika want to leave, and many have become passive. They don’t think they can change the situation. The system established a harsh criminal responsibility for expressing one’s own opinion: up to five years in prison for protests or publications on the internet. The economy is stagnant. We are dependent on fossil fuel industries, many sectors are corrupt and full of cronyism. The takeover of business by criminal oligarchs is obvious to everyone. It is easy to believe nothing can change. This is the little man’s complex, instilled by the authorities for years – that I am a small insignificant person who can do nothing.

Still, I think that like me, many younger people don’t believe the superficial propaganda about Ukraine. We condemn all forms of aggression. We believe the attack on Ukraine was clearly planned in advance – all my friends share this belief. There are many ways to get information and to think for yourself, if you can look and you have brains – for younger people, especially. There are Telegram channels. Brave bloggers and YouTubers. There are many ways to get news from other countries and to find people who will criticise what is happening.

I believe, and hope, that there will be no escalation of the conflict, but sanctions for Russia will be monstrous. There will be global isolation for us. The official position of the Kremlin is the demilitarisation and denationalisation of Ukraine. I don’t know how to live with this: it’s a shame and disgrace. But no form of protest is possible with us. Absolutely none. It’s the feeling of a helpless hostage.

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